Agent Joanna Volpe On: Why Realistic Teen Dialogue Isn't Necessarily a Good Thing (and a Free Book Giveaway!)

If you want to write young adult fiction, you need to listen to teens, but not listen to them. Any questions? When it comes to writing YA, everyone focuses on voice. And they’re right. Voice is so, so important to pin down. And when trying to nail down that voice, there is a ton of advice out there on realistic teen dialogue.
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Editor's note: I am declaring November 2010 to be "Agent Guest Column Month," and therefore, every weekday, I will be posting a guest column by a literary agent. Day 7: Today's guest agent is Joanna Volpe of Nancy Coffey Literary.

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If you want to write young adult fiction, you need to listen to teens, but not listen to them. Any questions? When it comes to writing YA, everyone focuses on voice. And they’re right. Voice is so, so important to pin down. And when trying to nail down that voice, there is a ton of advice out there on realistic teen dialogue:

  • Sit in a coffee shop or mall and eavesdrop on teens
  • Ask your daughter/son/niece/neighbor/students what lingo is hot these days
  • Watch teen TV shows or movies
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Joanna Stampfel-Volpe is an agent
with Nancy Coffey Literary. She is giving
away a free copy of The DUFF (a new YA
novel by her client, Kody Keplinger) to
one random, lucky commenter here.
Update: Jo picked a winner on 11-17-10.
It's Katherine R. -- Congrats!

Of course, these are good techniques for getting the sensibility of teens today, but do they lead to good dialogue? The answer is no. What works in an acted out scene doesn’t always translate well to the written word. If I were to write a scene with truly realistic teen dialog, it would go something like this:

“Hey Sara, what’s up?”
“Not much, you?”
“Not much,” I say as I BBM Michael. “I so hate Michael right now.”
“Ya,” Sara agrees. “Me, too.”
“I mean, he’s like, SUCH a jerk.”
“I knooooow,” Sara nods. “Totally.”
“Ugh,” I groan. Michael hasn’t answered. “I just hate him!”

And so on.

This would take 6-7 seconds if it were acted out. But reading it feels like 6 or 7 minutes. Ugh. Snore-fest, anyone? But this is reality. Which is why I’m here to tell you not to write realistic dialogue. Before you get angry and curse my name for throwing all of your research on YA voice into a tizzy, let me explain.

Listening to teens is equally as important as nailing that voice. By listening, you start to pick up on what they care about and how they react toward one another and why they say the things they say. Then you have to take all of that valuable research and incorporate it into a scene with heightened tension and conflict. You have to dramatize it. Make it interesting. Turn it into a story. And as long as you’ve been paying attention, the YA voice will come.

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